Oregon’s senior senator sends stern letter to Zhang Yesui

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden has taken China’s ambassador to task over Chinese efforts to get a politically charged mural removed from a building in downtown Corvallis.

In the strongest response yet from a U.S. official, Oregon’s senior senator fired off a sternly worded letter on Thursday chastising Ambassador Zhang Yesui for the actions of two Chinese diplomats. The consular officers pressured the mayor of Corvallis to force a building owner to take down the painting, which advocates independence for Taiwan and Tibet.

“I am writing to express my deep displeasure and concern with these actions,” Wyden wrote in his letter to Zhang, the highest-ranking Chinese official in the United States.

He called the Chinese tactics “a grave affront” and went on to lecture Zhang on the First Amendment’s guarantee of free expression, as well as freedom of religion and the press and the right of peaceful assembly.

“While these rights may not be respected in China, they are values that all Americans hold dear,” Wyden noted. “Any attempt by your government to suppress these rights is unacceptable and must not be repeated.”

The diplomatic spat began Aug. 8 with a letter to Corvallis Mayor Julie Manning from the Chinese Consulate General in San Francisco, complaining about the mural commissioned by Taiwanese-American businessman David Lin and asking for her help in having it taken down. The letter implied that allowing the painting to remain might harm trade relations between China and Oregon, while removing it might have economic benefits for Corvallis.

Manning wrote back that the city had no power to regulate artistic expression and that the U.S. Constitution protected political statements. She repeated those assertions in person on Sept. 4, when Vice Consul Zhang Hao and Deputy Consul General Song Ruan traveled to Corvallis for a face-to-face meeting with Manning and City Manager Jim Patterson.

The flap erupted into an international incident after the Gazette-Times reported on the exchange last week. The story quickly made the rounds of the Internet and drew widespread attention from the world media.

On Wednesday, members of Oregon’s congressional delegation stepped into the fight. Rep. Peter DeFazio, whose district includes Corvallis, blasted China in a speech on the House floor, and Sen. Jeff Merkley issued a short statement applauding Manning and Lin for sticking to their guns.

While China asserts sovereignty over both regions, Taiwan has its own democratically elected leadership and Tibet maintains a government-in-exile in India.

The mural on Lin’s building, painted by Taiwanese artist Chao Tsung-song, depicts Taiwan as a bastion of freedom and includes images of violent repression in Tibet, with riot police beating demonstrators and Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule.

According to Tibetan activists, some 50 monks have immolated themselves this year in escalating independence protests.

Although Lin said he worries about possible retaliation, he insists he will not take the mural down and says he has received an outpouring of encouragement from well-wishers.

“The support is unbelievable right now,” he told the Gazette-Times. “People come to my door and hug me.”

Contact reporter Bennett Hall at bennett.hall@gazettetimes.com or 541-758-9529.

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Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald

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